This open educational resource is designed to assist library patrons with low vision. Visual impairments are a broad category of disability that can range from blindness to partially sighted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates “More than one million Americans are legally blind and 12 million are visually impaired” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2015). Terms that fall under the category of visual impairments include legal blindness, low vision, and vision loss. Overall, visual impairment refers to visual acuity that cannot be easily remedied through basic corrective lenses. Generally, in the United States, the definition of “legal blindness” means that one’s visual acuity is 20/200 or less in an individual’s best eye, or a visual field equal to or less than 20 degrees (American Foundation for the Blind [AFB], 2017). The broader category of “vision impairment” is usually defined as vision worse than 20/40 even with eyeglasses (CDC, 2015). The causes of visual impairments are diverse. It can be present since birth, the result of a medical condition, or the result of physical injury. The major disease-related causes include cataracts, age-related muscular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma (CDC, 2015). Different causes impact the extent and ways which vision is impaired.
People who are visually impairments in North Carolina and across the country have important demographic correlations and future projections. Vision impairments are correlated with race, ethnicity, and gender. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “African-Americans and Hispanics are at higher risk for blindness and vision impairment than Caucasians because they are at higher risk for developing diabetes, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma,”. In terms of impact of vision impairments, “Females and low-income families are more affected by blindness and vision impairment than males,” (CDC, 2015). Alongside these correlations, vision impairments are significantly correlated with age. In 2017, the American Community Survey asked participants if they had a vision difficulty. Across all age groups the survey found 2.6% of participants in North Carolina (2.4% nationally) had vision impairments. This value is significantly positively correlated with age, for example populations of ages between 65 and 74 having 4.7% prevalence and ages 75+ having 10.2% prevalence (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). Another source of data related to vision impairments is Prevent Blindness America who provides statistics for vision impairment sin the United States from a 2012 national survey. The definition used by Prevent Blindness America is different from the commonly used definition. In this survey vision impairment is defined as having 20/40 or worse vision even with eyeglasses or contact lenses, but excludes total blindness. According to the data for North Carolina, “The number of North Carolina residents with impaired vision, including blindness, could more than double over the next three decades,” (Prevent Blindness America, 2012). These projections for North Carolina are in line with the national projections by the CDC which estimates the number of people who are blind and visually impaired could double by 2030 (CDC, 2015). This indicates that organizations and agencies need to begin providing the services and resources early to accommodate this rapidly growing section of the state’s population.
History of Services
Vision impairments have been a longstanding focus of disability services in America. Many of these were founded in the early and mid twentieth century. One of the most important organizations related to vision impairments in America was the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) which was founded in 1921 through the support of M.C. Migel who wanted to assist World War I veterans. Hellen Keller worked for the AFB for 44 years from 1924 to 1968. The AFB provided services, advocacy, and guiding research related to vision impairments. Major achievements of the AFB include provision of information resources and the nationwide Directory of Services (AFB, n.d.-b). Another important organization is Prevent Blindness. Founded in 1908, this organization provides health information and advocacy that advances public health efforts and public policy for people who are visually impaired (Prevent Blindness America, n.d.).
Libraries have also played important roles for individuals who are visually impaired. The most important one being the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH) through the Library of Congress founded in 1931 (National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped [NLS/BPH], n.d.). The early services were primarily braille, large-print, and talking books. The NLS/BPH has grown to provide a wider variety of resources and services to patrons nationwide. The expansion of the NLS/BPH includes the creation of a network of regional libraries. The North Carolina Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NCLBPH) is part of this network. Established in 1958, the NCLBPH provides many of the same resources and services as the NLS/BPH but on a local level and works together with libraries and organizations across the state (North Carolina Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped [NCLBPH], n.d.).
User Information and Technology Needs
Information provision has been a longstanding focus of services for individuals who are visually impaired. Early forms of this was braille, large print, and audio books through organizations such as the NLS/BPH and the NCLBPH. Today libraries still play an important role in information provision for people with visual impairments. With new assistive technologies and software, there is a need to train users how to operate these devices and programs. In Orange County, the local libraries in Hillsborough and Carrboro offer a variety of devices and software for patrons who are blind or visually impaired. These devices and software were recently acquired through a grant. Offering training in the library for local patrons, new or frequent, would be useful as it would be suited to the offerings of that specific space and how to navigate it. Many of the patrons to the Carrboro Cybrary are older and face economic hardships such as unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness. These are demographics that are more likely to have vision impairments and would therefore benefit from these library resources and training. The Community Workshop Series is well-suited to address this need since these are demographics that CWS already works with in other courses and CWS has strong relationships with the local libraries which host the courses.
Web accessibility can be a major challenge for people who are blind or visually impaired who are able to access the internet. Websites can be poorly designed for blind and visually impaired users. Problems that occur include low or poor color contrast, small fonts and buttons, and difficult navigation (Arendalkowski, 2015). Even with assistive technology such as screen magnifiers or screen readers, these websites can be inaccessible or the websites are incompatible with the assistive technology (AFB, n.d.-a). The issue of web accessibility is particularly problematic as the result of two trends. The first and obvious trend is the ever-increasing need for internet access to meet basic information needs such as weather, public transportation schedules, and banking services. By having inaccessible websites, people who are blind or visually impaired are being excluded from accessing essential information and services. The second problematic trend relating to accessibility is the shift to more complex web layouts that prioritize certain aesthetics and features over the needs of those who are visually impaired. Advancements in web design have in many cases decreased accessibility and constructed barriers to information.
While issues of web accessibility are persistent, there are resources and standards that help promote universal accessible website design. The largest of which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These are recommended standards for website design published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. The first series of guidelines WCAG 1.0 issued in 1999 contained 14 guidelines and highlighted three priorities (W3C Web Accessibility Initiative [WAI], 1999). In 2008, WCAG 2.0 was issued. This set forth a series of guidelines for each guiding principle: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (WAI, 2008). In 2018, WCAG 2.1 was published. This update cited improving accessibility for “people with low vision” as one of its major focuses alongside “people with cognitive or learning disabilities” and “mobile accessibility” (WAI, 2018). WCAG has become an industry standard for accessible website design. In many cases, there is a legal obligation for website to be accessible according to WCAG standards. Many federal and state government websites have been forced to conform to WCAG 2.0 standards to be in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.) The federal government recommends even non-federal websites conform to WCAG 2.0 standards to avoid the possibility of legal challenges at the federal or state level (U.S. General Services Administration, 2017).
Despite possible legal obligation, the adoption of universal web design and basic accessibility standards is not universal. Adopting more accessible web design principles is not only essential to meeting the information needs of disabled populations but would also benefit everyone. The American Foundation for the Blind argues, “The same good techniques that make web pages accessible to those of us who use access technology benefit users of other devices as well. For example, people with slower Internet connections and those using devices such as cell phones or tablets that have smaller screens,” (AFB, n.d.-a) By creating better websites that are accessible to the widest range of potential users, access to information can be more equitable.